ANNA MARIA ISLAND - Capt. Anthony Manalli doesn't have much pity for mullet, but he has lots of respect for their survival skills.
"They take on the kingfish, they take on the barracudas, they take on the sharks," he said.
But the unlucky ones end up under Manelli's filet knife to surrender their bright golden egg sacs--a delicacy in Europe and Asia that's only recently catching on here.
"Like an anchovy in a tomato sauce, it gives a wonderful background of the sea flavor," said Ed Chiles, son of the late Florida governor and owner of the Sandbar Restaurant on Anna Maria Island.
Chiles and his partners have not only embraced the exotic, heart-shaped egg sacs, they're turning it into a gourmet product they call Cortez Gold.
In Taiwan, they cure the mullet roe in salt and then dry it in the sun on rooftops and call it "karasumi." The same basic process in Italy makes 'bottarga," a centuries old treat.
Bottarga can be sliced and served plain but is more often grated on pasta and other dishes. It's become a trendy and pricey ingredient in high-end restaurants in the U.S., but the casual Sandbar puts it on shrimp and grits and a simple toasted slice of ciobatta bread.
"We lightly brush them with olive oil and put them on the grill for toasty grill marks," Chiles said, "then put the granulated bottarga on the top."
Capt. Mannali believes the fishing villages around Anna Maria and Cortez export as much as a million pounds of raw, unprocessed mullet roe each year mostly to Taiwan and Sardinia. The difference is local fishermen get about $17 a pound for the unprocessed roe. Bottarga sells for about 10 times as much.
But right now Chiles said their Anna Maria Fish company is the only certified company making bottarga in the nation.
"It's an economic development project," he said. "Instead of letting somebody overseas add all the value to this, we're doing it and that's better for our fisherman here. It's better for business here. And it's a product that brands our area."